A lot of the rescuer stories I've told so far have been of non-Jews hiding or saving Jews. This one is quite different.
There's an image, sometimes, that Jews were passive during WWII: victimized or rescued, their fate depending solely on others. The truth is otherwise: many, many Jews resisted as they could. Some resisted by force of arms, even in the face of hopeless odds, some by underground activities and rescue, some by--like Daniel--continuing to worship God as Jews when it was terrifyingly forbidden. (Read more on Jewish resistance here.) Madeleine Dreyfus resisted by saving Jewish children.
Saving them, hiding them, and counseling them. Madeleine was a psychologist.
She hadn't felt any particular bond with the Jewish community, growing up; she was raised as an atheist, and had friends of different faiths. Her studies took her into intellectual and artistic circles in Paris, where she met her husband Raymond (whose background was also Jewish.) But as the war encroached on their lives, things changed bit by bit. Her husband, drafted into the French military and then discharged after the defeat, took a job in Paris--then lost it for being Jewish. The new French government had made it illegal for Jews to hold jobs they considered "positions of trust." The Dreyfuses left for Lyon in the Unoccupied Zone, where a friend who was leaving the country asked Madeleine, as a trained psychologist, to take over her job. The job was with the OSE, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants--a Jewish organization with a double life and a double name (which still exists today.)
Secours means more than one thing. The OSE's name can be translated as Children's Aid Network--or Children's Rescue Network. This was exactly right. Officially, they were about aid--food, shelter, social services. But as the threat rose, a shadow side of the OSE rose to meet it, with rescue.
Madeleine started on the social services end, plying her trade, counseling troubled young people whose parents had taken refuge in Lyon. Then disaster struck--the first great round-up of foreign Jews in the Unoccupied Zone, August 1942. She was called on to help in an incredible illegal rescue performed by the OSE and a network of Christian aid organizations, the Venissieux rescue I wrote about last year, in which over 100 children--almost all the children arrested in the Lyon area--were spirited away and hidden from the authorities who had intended to deport them. Madeleine's work was to make the children disappear before the police could find them.
This was her entry into the new underground side of the OSE, and she plunged into it fully from then on, understanding that the children's lives were at stake, and willing to risk her own for them. She organized the making of false papers and ration cards, did the risky work of feeling out local institutions to find places to hide Jewish children. She made a contact that led her to Le Chambon, and found the town a godsend: a place where not just a few, but dozens or hundreds of children might be welcomed.
Soon she was traveling regularly from Lyon to Le Chambon, to find places for Jewish children and to deliver them to their new homes. She was put in charge of that section of the Garel network, a highly organized secret network in which Jewish children were transported anonymously, each worker not knowing the name of the fellow worker she passed them to. It was much like the work my mother and I described in Defy the Night, but far more terrifying: if the children slipped up and spoke the wrong language or called each other by their real names, they might be arrested and immediately deported, and the worker too. Madeleine personally transported over 100 children--some of them given to her by their parents, some of them escapees from their parents' arrest. She cared for them, helping them to adjust, bringing letters from their parents (who weren't told their addresses, for safety) if she could. She valued her local allies in Le Chambon very much, and told stories about them after the war--one of her favorites was about how a dear friend of hers, when asked about Jews by the police, used to say "Jews? What does that mean, 'Jews?'"
Madeleine had two children, and during this time became pregnant with a third. After her daughter's birth she resumed her traveling. It was 1943, and French Jews like Madeleine and her family were under threat of arrest now. Her husband, whose sister-in-law had just been deported with her children, begged Madeleine (who didn't have false papers of her own) to stop risking her life. She asked him to wait till she could find someone to replace her in the work.
In November 1943, Madeleine walked into a trap.
She called a boarding school that turned out to be in the midst of a Gestapo raid, to ask after some children she'd placed there. The woman who answered the phone asked her--being ordered to do so at gunpoint--to come to the school immediately. She was arrested when she walked in. The trap had been set for a major local Resistance organizer, but she was swept up in it too.
She asked to be allowed to go home briefly to breastfeed her baby, or at least to call home and arrange for her care. When they allowed the phone call, she called the National Jewish Council instead and slipped a warning into the message. Her family fled their home immediately, and the OSE was warned as well.
Incredibly, although Madeleine was interrogated by the Gestapo under Klaus Barbie, the infamous Butcher of Lyon, they did not find out about her clandestine activities. But her papers revealed she was Jewish, so they didn't let her go. She was sent to Drancy, a French internment camp from which people were regularly deported to Auschwitz, and barely saved from that fate by a lawyer friend who was a fellow prisoner there and was able to falsify her legal status enough to exempt her. Even from the internment camp, she was once able to get a warning to a Jewish children's home she had heard was in danger. She also sent off a coded message asking her husband to have their own older children smuggled to Switzerland, and they made it safely there.
But in May 1944 she was deported to Germany.
She was sent to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp without gas chambers. It was a terrible place, where forty thousand inmates died of starvation and disease, but Madeleine said very little after the war about her experiences there. Once she wrote: "I came back. Therefore, I won't complain."
She worked hard to keep her dignity in the camp, and uphold others' as well. She helped others as she could, and they trusted her. One of the few stories she told out of her time there: she was once chosen to divide a hard-boiled egg among fifteen people. "I still have the taste of that fifteenth of the hard-boiled egg in my mouth," she wrote many years later. The effects of profound hunger, the way it made human beings feel like animals in their longing for even a handful of rutabaga peelings or a bone, haunted her then and later.
In the spring of 1945 she was liberated with the other camp survivors, so starved that they combed the fields for dandelion leaves to eat, and feasted on boiled soup-bones they found in a railroad workers' shack. She finally made it back to France and to her family. They had all survived. There would be much to rebuild; her 21-month-old daughter barely knew her. But they had time.
She came back. And she did not complain.
She worked with and counseled the children the OSE still cared for after the war, children who had survived terrible trauma, many of them now orphans. Later she went into private practice as a psychotherapist, especially skilled with families and children. She kept deep friendships from her work during the war. Her husband summed up her life, in a memoir, with the word "Ecoute": listening.
There's one other thing I would like to talk about today. Speaking of bones, leaves, and one-fifteenth of a hard-boiled egg. The worst famine since World War II is happening in Africa this year. And like the hunger during World War II, it is not caused by nature but by war, by people willing to shoot and dehumanize others. In South Sudan people are being forced to flee for their lives into wilderness where they can hide from soldiers, knowing that there is no food there. They go knowing that their children may starve. And that if they stay they'll be murdered.
When the survivors of this terror make it to the other side, to places that are, or should be, safe, they are desperate for food. Especially for their children. Young bodies are resilient; they can bounce back from starvation--if they get enough food, and fast. And there is food aid coming in, being made available to these people. But not enough. Nowhere near enough.
We can change that.
We can't change all of it. We can never change all of it. We're too few. Our government could, but it won't at this point. And that makes it hard to think about; that article I linked was hard to read, for me, the pictures hard to look at. But: I can only imagine how hard it was for Madeleine, knowing how many she could not save. There were so many. But she saved the ones she could. There are women like her out there, doing everything they can, carefully dividing the handfuls of food they have. Let's add what we can.
I've set up a fundraising page for fighting this famine, through Oxfam. They're a reputable, thoroughly experienced organization, and I feel they're the best choice to get as much food to these people as quickly as possible. (But if they are not the organization you'd choose, please--find one that is.) I'll be donating when my book advance comes in.
Would you donate too?